Blazing Star – update

I’ve written a lengthy piece about Rochester and his strained relationship with Charles II for last weekend’s Telegraph.

The book’s been reviewed incisively in the Erotic Review, and glowingly in the Mail on Sunday (‘Larman does a splendidly entertaining job of detailing Rochester’s debauchery…a witty and elegant biography’) and Scotland on Sunday (‘a very good, assiduously researched and well written book….a very accomplished debut.’)

Also a nice piece in last weekend’s Observer. I’m thinking of writing a blog soon about being reviewed – for good or ill…

I am lining up some more appearances in person and on the radio – full details to follow in due course.

And I’ve done a short piece about Rochester’s enduring appeal for the August issue of Absolutely Putney and Wandsworth.


Beijing – pt 2

I arrive in Beijing early evening after a flight on the appropriately named Dragonair, which gets me from A to B without much in the way of unnecessary fuss or comfort. Beijing airport is a near-clone of Hong Kong’s – perhaps unsurprising, given that both were designed by Foster and Partners, amongst others. The first impression is that of luxurious opulence, but in a more watchful, contained manner than before. People stand around watching arrivals, and the queues are long. An unsmiling man taps away at a computer for what seems like an eternity, and it’s only when I’ve resigned myself to ‘re-education’ somewhere that all is apparently well and I’m allowed through to head to The Opposite House.

Like its Cantonese sibling, the Opposite House is an extremely slick and successful operation. It has a more opulent and grandiose feel to it, thanks to a courtyard-like design in the centre where the rooms all lead off, and also because of its multiple restaurants and bars. The accommodation itself is as comfortable as before, but with a slight twist; the white-hued walls and austere light wood make the place feel like the most luxurious monastery known to man, a feeling enhanced by the slightly off-kilter modern art that adorns the public spaces. (Again, it was designed by Andre Fu; my feeling is that he was given freer rein here.)

The first place that I sample dinner at is the Sureño restaurant, a Mediterranean spot lurking snugly in the basement. Conceived on a grand scale, it serves exemplary tapas on a scale that would impress the most hardened of Catalonians. Dishes including focaccia y jamon, oysters, mussels, excellent anchovies (and I loathe anchovies) and more come, one after another, and I’m powerless to stop adding them to my plate. The embarrassment is only slightly ameliorated by two factors; firstly, it’s my birthday and I feel some self-indulgence is vaguely in order, and secondly, a Wagyu rib-eye steak that comes as a main course puts a halt to any more gluttony. As I stagger up to bed, replete and more than satisfied, the vague thought crosses my mind that the local dishes I try had better live up to the foreign ones.

I soon find out, thanks to a cookery class I undertake at the Hutong cookery school nearby. I am not, nor have never been, one of those fortunate coves who is handy in the kitchen, but I embarrass myself in even more comic ways by failing to get to grips with the meat cleaver-esque knife with which I’ve been tasked to chop up cabbage. Once the mocking laughter dies down and my talents have been transferred to something more suitable (mixing), I can watch with wry interest at the way in which dishes such as cold noodles with soy bean paste and (a curiosity, this) stir fried fermented tofu with lamb are created, as if by alchemy. The eventual lunch is delicious, although I skulk in a corner as I eat it, vaguely ashamed of my utter incompetence.

A swift tour of the streets of Beijing follows, and I begin to get an impression of the place. While there are certain fleeting similarities with Hong Kong that extend beyond the airport, there are also substantial differences. There, a freely Westernized attitude holds sway that allows a certain sense of familiarity to set in immediately. Here, the lasting influence of the successful 2008 Olympics has been to set the city up as a world-class place for tourism and culture, but also the sense of otherness remains. Communism may be long dead, but Chairman Mao’s face still adorns banknotes. The days where tourists are required by law to stay in certain approved hotels are gone, but obtaining a visa remains a Byzantine process. It is fair to say that Beijing is not a place for anyone wanting an easy time, but the rewards – cultural and culinary alike – are considerable.

Ah yes, the food…we were going to mention that, weren’t we? Dining out here is a big deal. Restaurants start to fill up at ludicrously early hours, and queues persist for ages afterwards. For traditional fare at somewhere like the Najiaxiaoguan restaurant, expect excellent food along with a few oddities (but the more adventurously you order, the greater the rewards will be) at prices that are very low by Western standards. A modern alternative is the superlative Yunnan establishment Middle 8, which offers a more conventionally comfortable experience, albeit with the same, shall we say, ‘casual’ level of service. (Bowing and scraping certainly aren’t the done things here.) There are touches of quirkiness everywhere you look, whether it’s Najiaxiaoguan’s birdcages or the candied worms that are served up at Middle 8 as an amuse-bouche. I managed two.

A visit here wouldn’t be complete without heading to the Forbidden City. It’s simultaneously hugely impressive and rather repetitive, offering vast scale and a sense of hundreds of years of history in awe-inspiring fashion, and yet without any real sense of how the residents of this mighty palace lived and died. Perhaps one day this will be rectified, but in lieu of displays or explanations there’s always the kitsch appeal of wandering round and looking at the Forbidden gift shop, selling anything from Forbidden burgers and popcorn to Forbidden dolls. A brisk walk round Tiananmen Square afterwards was similarly impressive and daunting; the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao adorning the outside of the Forbidden City reinforced the idea, had we needed to remember, that this is still a country in a state of flux.

Before too long, it’s time to head home, but there’s one final treat left to come, in the shape of dinner at the Opposite House’s new restaurant, Jing Yaa Tang. Designed in association with Alan Yau (who is to open a version of it in London imminently), it’s got the sleek, classy feel of his establishments such as Hakkasan and HKK, but with a particular ace up its sleeve in the form of its roast Peking duck, which is miles ahead of virtually every other form of this animal I’ve ever tasted, and served with smiling panache by the staff. As I munch on the bird, reflecting that it probably had a short but happy life, I reflect that in an odd way it’s the national symbol of the city; it might look somewhat unappetizing on the outside, but it offers a smorgasbord of delicious flavours and unexpected delights that mean that experiencing it is an absolute pleasure.

Stay at The Opposite House from RMB 2,300 per night in a Studio 45 room, excluding 15% service charge. Add a breakfast package at Village Café for RMB 180.

Hong Kong/Beijing pt 1

I was lounging around, doing little or nothing as is my wont, when an email from Larry arrived in my inbox. It was short and sweet. ‘Larman, old boy. Trip to the Far East. Hong Kong, Beijing. See the sights, stay in some fabulous hotels, and eat a lot. You game?’ It was possibly the easiest invitation I’ve ever said ‘aye’ to in my life, despite the worries of the Lady, who expressed concern that I’d end up making a fool out of myself over a geisha girl. I was able to put her doubts to rest. ‘That’s Japan. Not even sure that they know what a geisha is in Hong Kong.’

So, a couple of weeks later, I was bound on an easterly flight on Cathay Pacific, who lived up to their stellar reputation with a comfortable and relatively easy journey, although I fear that a comfortable night’s sleep on a long-haul flight is a Holy Grail that can only be reached with Zen-like patience and determination, or maybe Xanax. Nonetheless, arrival at the airport saw a seamless transfer to my first destination, the Upper House.

Currently ranked by TripAdvisor as the city’s finest hotel (‘We don’t like to set much store by these things’, grins Michelle, the communications manager, ‘but it’s certainly very nice’), everything about this rather divine Andre-Fu designed spot radiates a sort of easy peace and calm, from the sumptuously appointed studio bedrooms that are larger and rather more comfortable than the average London flat to the beautifully decorated public spaces, not least the Sky Lounge on the top level with breathtaking views over the skyscrapers around and the stunning floor-spanning atrium, complete with genuinely tasteful modern art that stimulates the senses, rather than overwhelms them. Service is perfect, offering just the right combination of friendliness and efficiency, and the minibar is free, save for the fine wines and champagne offered. I could warm to life here, I thought as I sank onto the absurdly comfortable bed for a quick pre-dinner nap.

And, oh my, dinner here is something worth getting up for. Eschewing lazy ‘pan-Asian’ clichés, the menu here, supervised by Gray Cunz (hence the name of the restaurant, the Café Gray Deluxe) is a thrilling mixture of American, European and Eastern influences. An appetiser of butternut squash soup and sweet potato pierogie is complemented by applewood smoked foie gras, followed by red rice crusted lobster and tea-smoked organic chicken. The fine wines accompanying each course are delectable – the Franck Bonville Cuvee Prestige champagne, previously unknown to me, was an especial highlight – and, after a scrumptious passion fruit omelette soufflé, I retire to bed, replete, to shake off the last of the jet lag and prepare for a foray into Hong Kong proper the following day.

After a splendid American-influenced breakfast to set the day up (the ‘Upper West’ option – there are plenty more, roughly according to Asian, healthy and minimalist), I journey into the centre of the city to resume my mission of expanding my belt a couple of notches, by visiting the new bistro Plat du Jour. A rather self-conscious attempt to recreate a classic French establishment, albeit in the setting of a café, it got points for its faithful execution of the sort of dishes that you’d find in any self-respecting backstreet Parisian brasserie (escargots, steak au poivre), but lost them again for the absence of a wine list. (‘No liquor licence’, apparently – in HK, this is an occupational hazard, with places having to wait up to six months before one is granted.) Thence round the markets and bazaars of the city, via the Wong Tai Sin Temple, where I had my fortune told in a bizarre ritual involving much palm-crossing with silver. Apparently, 2014 is going to be ‘a big year, with much change.’ That’s me told.

The first properly Cantonese place that I dined in was the famous Under Bridge Spicy Crab. (Somewhere, a grammarian is mourning the lack of a comma). Ironically, the spicy crab is probably the least interesting thing in the smorgasbord of delights we sampled, with a succulent platter of roast meats and a clam broth that wouldn’t disgrace a Michelin-starred establishment the highlights. Service is of the brusque but efficient variety; English is hinted at, rather than spoken. To cool my head and fire my heart thereafter I headed off in search of the much-heralded pubs of the city, finding a particularly fine example in The Globe, which, when you get past the unappealing draft selection (Old Speckled Hen is highly thought of here) offers some excellent beers by the bottle at relatively wallet-friendly prices.

Wandering round the streets of Hong Kong, by day or not, the impression given is that of a place in flux. There’s a strong European (if not American) element, with English as widely spoken a language as Cantonese, and the likes of Marks and Spencer and Harvey Nichols selling their wares as if we were in an upmarket British city. Set against this, the impression is of a hugely cramped place, with thousands of tiny apartments, especially in Kowloon, where the rather dismal spectacle of washing being hung outside a window is de rigueur. As a city, the resemblance is less with New York – a comparison often made – and more with Dubai, if that city had an ounce of the class and style that this one has. One hopes it might, one day, but holding one’s breath seems a bad idea.

At last, it’s time to head off on the second leg of the adventure, but first a stop at the ‘traditional tea house’, Luk Yu (yes, and luk you too), where I’m fed a bewildering variety of dim sum at far too early an hour, and where the highlights (perfect char siu buns; delectable green tea; succulent shrimp dumplings) easily outnumber the more ‘eh?’ dishes on offer. (I’m sure I ate tripe, although it’s described as beef.) Then it’s off to the airport, for a rather different and less obviously Western-friendly experience. Beijing awaits!

The Arbuturian travelled with Heathrow Express – saver express return from £34 at Stay at The Upper House from HKD 4,800 per night in a Studio 70 room, excluding 10% service charge and room only. Cathay Pacific flies five times daily between London and Hong Kong with connecting flights to over 170 destinations worldwide, including 22 in China.
To book flights, visit

St James Theatre interview

Heading to London’s newest theatre, the St James, in the pouring rain on a grim early February day is something of an endurance test, not helped by a tube strike which has paralysed the city. Victoria currently resembles a building site, and virtually every single street is either blocked off, semi-demolished or has a forbidding aspect to it. Therefore, it’s something of a relief to turn into Palace Street and find myself in the regal surroundings of the St James, where the smiling staff of the box office represent a welcoming vision of tranquillity in the depressing bleakness of the day.

The theatre, which first opened its doors in late 2012, has attracted plaudits for a distinctive and eye-catching programme, including staging Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage and, most recently, Sondheim’s revue Putting It Together on its main stage (as the press officer proudly informs me, ‘300 seats and a great view from all of them’), and a variety of offbeat and interesting work in its rather cool studio theatre, including everything from jazz and cabaret to one-man (and one woman) shows. It’s an eclectic and exciting place to see a variety of shows, but it’s also a friendly place to pop into for a cup of tea and sandwich, or an evening glass of wine. Unlike most comparable places, it’s open from noon until 11pm, and there’s likely to be something going on most of that time.

It’s also blessed with an excellent restaurant, Carrara, where I meet the charming duo of Director of Development Lady Lucy French and Associate Artistic Director James Albrecht for lunch. Dynamic without being overbearing, they represent the best of what the world of theatre has to offer, and prove a splendidly entertaining pair of guides to the world of St James. Lucy – who refuses a glass of wine on the excellent grounds that ‘I have a meeting with the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Culture this afternoon’ – is clearly passionate about all things Victoria and St James, but all too aware that, in an economic climate that isn’t as favourable towards the arts as many involved in would like, getting audiences in can be something of an uphill struggle. As she says, ‘While we’re delighted about the way that it’s all gone since we opened, it’s always a challenge to launch a brand new theatre in the midst of the recession, and it took a year to establish ourselves. Now, we’re having a fantastic time – two completely sold out shows this year already – and our reputation in both the studio and the main house is growing.’ This comes in no small part because of an eclectic programming policy that includes the Broadway smash hit Urinetown (‘getting in some of our more conservative audiences with that title might be a struggle’, James wryly notes) and the return of the great Max Stafford-Clark to direct a new NHS satire, This May Hurt A Bit.

It’s important for both Lucy and James that the theatre appeals both to the local community and wider afield – it’s a source of mild surprise to them that the third most popular postcode that their visitors hail from is ‘leafy NW3’. Nonetheless, they’re both aware that SW1 isn’t an area oversupplied with things to do of an evening – ‘the Royal Court being an obvious exception’, as James interjects – and that it isn’t enough just to provide somewhere to pop into, but to be a destination in its own right. James points out that, while both reviews and visitor numbers have been encouraging, ‘we’re not in a position to relax – it’s still early days and, while we get a feeling that there’s a buzz about the place, we have to keep ourselves from being complacent.’ One area that attracts a raised eyebrow is that of star casting; the theatre has been attracting excellent ensemble casts of superb actors but none of the A-listers, to date, who regularly appear at the Donmar and Almeida. As James says, ‘We never felt that we had to populate our plays with recognisable names and faces from TV and film, rather than we wanted the best actors for a part. However, getting the volume of people in that a new theatre needs does seem to require well-known people…’ He looks almost apologetic at this, and Lucy interjects ‘I think it’s important to strike a balance; we’re a serious theatre, and we want to balance high quality work with commercial success, which has been a chance to bring plays that might not suit a West End slot.’ Nonetheless, the appearances of the likes of Julian Clary and heartthrob Hadley Fraser at the studio seem a happy marriage of artistic integrity and A-list glitz.

It’s a pleasure to discuss the past, present and future of the theatre with two such obviously committed lovers of drama, and I’m particularly pleased that James wants to stage ‘a big, hilarious comedy’ in the main theatre in the near future, which he hopes will be their answer to One Man, Two Guvnors. As we finish our lunch, Lucy looks at me as we’re saying our goodbyes, and says, mock-imploringly, ‘You will come back and see us again soon, won’t you?’ My ticket to Urinetown is already booked.

To find out more about the St James Theatre, visit